“Ee,” the sweet lady at the San Francisco hotel in Bago, creaked open a dubious smile as she divulged to me the secrets of how to see all of Bago’s great sights without paying the hefty government entrance fee. With the city map laid out on the reception desk, she showed me which entrances would permit me to skirt around ticket checkers or when to arrive so I show up before or after they do. While the government’s made some strides in favor of its people over the last decade, it still has a long way to go before it earn its people’s respect, and Ee and I both were happy to give them the finger by cheating them out of admission costs.
On a rented bicycle, I raced ahead of the ticket checkers to the Shwethalyang Buddha, a cheerful Buddha laid on his side, partially perched on an arm. The soles of his feet are absurdly ornate, but most remarkable about him is the fact that he’s 55 meters long. His little finger is 3.05 meters long and his upwardly curved lips run 2.29 meters across. A slightly smaller replica sits outdoors to the south.
I got lost somewhere near the Bago River and let myself into a monastery to look around. A kindly monk by the name of Ottama invited me to sit with him and we talked at length of the political and spiritual state of his country. He showed me clips on his smart phone of Obama’s recent visit to Myanmar, greeted by Myanmar’s champion for democracy Aung San Suu Kyi. Ottama walked me through some of the Burmese pleasantries I hadn’t picked up yet (a few of my mental tricks are Yao Ming Ali Baba for hello and Jay-Z Ding Bat Day for thank you). After he scribed in curvy Burmese characters the word for vegetarian, he insisted that I join the monks for their daily lunch and my face was promptly stuffed with rice, peanuts, corn, okra, and this lovely salad made from tomatoes, green onions, and crispy sun dried potatoes. Three dozen young monks ate their rice and tried not to stare at the westerner. In Myanmar, there’s an expectation that young men should spend two periods of their life participating in monastic life even if they don’t become fulltime monks – once as adolescents and once again as young adults.
Losing myself further in the outlying villages, I found myself entertaining the locals simply by being there, and their looks of happy curiosity were a welcome change from the burning penetrating stares I became accustomed to in India. Freshly cut watermelon rescued me from the afternoon sun.
Later, at another Stupa, one of the same name and design as Yangon’s greatest, but 14 meters taller and completely devoid of westerners, I was battling with timidity about taking pictures of monks when a couple started taking pictures of me and we had fun gawking at each other and making unintelligible attempts at communicating in each other’s languages. Outside, men young and old played a game we could compare with hacky sack, suspending a hollow wicker soccer ball in the air with their feet.
Many of the people here have pasty markings on their faces, sometimes in deliberate patterns and sometimes in a nonchalant mess, and it wasn’t until the third time someone told me it was sunscreen that I believed it. Villagers peddled their wares from large metal discs balanced on their heads and lovely young women shaded themselves with umbrellas in not-quite-Chinese style dresses.
Now armed with that magic word gifted to me by Ottama, the three syllables that formed a key – “Ta-da-loh” – I now felt brave enough to venture forth from the tourist restaurants and join the English-less locals for mealtime. “Ta-da, I’m a vegetarian,” and with a courteous nod, my restaurant hosts would come back with plates of surprises. First noodles with fried egg, cauliflower, and spicy onions, later a tin with rice, potato soup, three mystery sides of varying consistency and color, and so much tasty chai.
I had originally planned on venturing further south to enjoy a jungle cruise and a day long pilgrimage to a golden rock sitting atop a mountain, but my feet are still recovering from Nepal, I was unsure how much of the cash I brought was viable by ridiculous Burmese standards, and I had overheard people having great difficulty booking rooms and busses in the more popular locations up north, so I felt behooved to cancel my southern itinerary so that I would be better prepared for my time in the north. I booked it back to Yangon to be ready for the great spectacles spiraling from Mandalay in the north.